Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

America, America

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

America, America

Article excerpt

Americans have always been an intensely patriotic people. Most of them love their country without reserve and without need for reflection. Devotion to the nation and its symbols is a cultural given, one that politicians ignore at risk of prompt return to private life. Our national parties stage a quadrennial competition as to which of them can crowd the most flags onto the platforms from which their spokesmen outbid one another in expressions of patriotic enthusiasm.

This apparent consensus, however, hides subtle differences. Americans are almost all patriots, but, as common observation suggests and empirical evidence confirms, Republicans are more comfortable than Democrats in saying so. This puts the latter at a disadvantage in the public mind, a problem reflected in the recurring complaint among Democrats that Republicans are impugning their loyalty. (That complaint seldom arises the other way around.)

The political situation, in turn, reflects ideological predispositions. Conservatives are more easily inclined to unqualified affirmation of country than are liberals, who fear that patriotism unchecked by moral considerations can indeed be the refuge of scoundrels that Dr. Johnson warned against. Liberals are more cosmopolitan in their instinctive loyalties. Not many Americans are likely to declare themselves "citizens of the world," but the few who do are almost exclusively on the left.

American liberals have not always been as suspicious of patriotism as they seem to be today. The rise of spreadeagle American nationalism is generally associated with the expansionist impulse of the 1840s that insisted it was the nation's "manifest destiny" to extend its democratic and civilizing reach across the entire continent. Manifest Destiny was, by and large, a Democratic cause, and it was mostly conservative Whigs who worried about its jingoistic tendencies.

Indeed, American liberalism has through most of its history clung to an unshakable faith in the rectitude of the American people and thus to a confidence that the nation could always be trusted to do the right thing in the end. The Populist, Progressive, and New Deal expressions of liberalism differed in many ways, but they all agreed that the nation's problems arose from the wrong people having got control of things. Those wrong people were never the real people. They were instead special interests or the agents of special interests, and it was assumed that once reformers revealed the usurpers' identity the authentic people would rise up to remove them from power and reclaim possession of the nation's destiny. America was safe for patriotism because its common people - the yeoman farmers, urban workers, and ordinary members of its amorphous middle class - would always recover from momentary political error or economic folly and return to the path of national virtue.

All that changed in the 1960s, when the American left came undone with the rise of New Left radicals and New Politics liberals. For the first time in history, a significant part of the left turned its guns away from its traditional enemies on the right - the economic plutocrats and political reactionaries - and trained them instead on the liberal establishment. Liberal intellectuals dismissed Lyndon Johnson's Great Society achievements as insufficient in themselves - they somehow didn't get to the undefined but radically urgent heart of things - and as mere extensions of a tired New Deal tradition that had presumably played itself out.

And those achievements didn't, of course, pay appropriate heed to the overriding contemporary disasters in which establishment liberalism was deeply complicit: an indefensible war in Vietnam and an inadequately addressed civil rights revolution at home. (The intellectual left dismissed the landmark civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965 as wellmeaning but unmeaning: sadly feeble responses to the desperate necessities of the moment.)

For critics on the left, the crises over Vietnam and civil rights represented more than failures in policy and more, finally, than malfeasance on the part of the liberal establishment. …

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